The plight of two tiny bear cubs who climbed an 80-foot tree to safety after their mother was killed elevates a question for Connecticut residents.
What should be the relationship between humans and wildlife?
The orphaned 4-month-old brothers, one 11 pounds, the other 13 pounds, now live at the renowned Kilham Bear Center in New Hampshire, where they will be carefully raised in preparation for a return to the wild.
But their fate, at first, was headed in a different direction, said wildlife rehabilitators and members of the state Legislature’s Animal Advocacy Caucus, who tracked the cubs through the woods after their mother was shot by an off-duty police officer in Newtown.
The mother bear, named Bobbi, was so well known over the last four or five years that Newtown residents set up a Facebook page tracking her whereabouts. Bobbi, caught sleeping once in a homeowner’s hammock, was not known to have hurt anyone.
When she was killed on May 12, animal advocates at first thought state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection wildlife experts were tracking her cubs, said Annie Hornish, Connecticut state director of the Humane Society of the United States.
But there was no sign of DEEP on May 13, Hornish said, when Newtown residents were posting time-stamped photos on social media sites showing the cubs climbing or sitting in trees, as their mother taught them to do in times of danger.
That day, reporters went to the neighborhood to talk to Newtown residents, and so did DEEP Environmental Conservation Police Officers, Hornish said.
On May 14 the cubs were still missing and there was no sign that DEEP was searching for them, though Newtown residents continued to do so, Hornish said. So she and members of the Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators Association went into the woods and cornfields Bobbi was known to frequent to see if they could spot the cubs, she said.
Newtown residents said DEEP officers did not appear intent on finding the cubs, Hornish said.
“DEEP twice told neighbors to let nature take its course. That’s jargon for, ‘Let them die,’” Hornish said. “DEEP said the cubs were 25 to 30 pounds, and they were less than half that. They would have died.”
They may not have been able to find enough food, and they certainly would not be strong enough to fight off predators or experienced enough to avoid getting hit by a car, Hornish said, and they absolutely would not have enough body fat to survive the cold this fall, she said.
She and wildlife rehabilitators returned to the woods on May 15, when association President Laura Simon and others spotted the cubs and called DEEP shortly after 4 p.m., Hornish said.
One of the licensed rehabilitators, Deborah Galle, said DEEP showed up five hours later.
“We do not have any authority in a situation like this; DEEP has all the authority,” Galle said. “The proper way is for us to work with them. So we waited five hours in the woods.”
They were joined by State Rep. David Michel of Stamford, co-chair of the Legislature’s Animal Advocacy Caucus. Michel said he called other state representatives from his caucus, some of whom joined him in the woods. They contacted a TV station and held a press conference.
Michel said he also called the DEEP commissioner’s office and the chief of staff for Gov. Ned Lamont.
“DEEP said they were monitoring the cubs, but DEEP didn’t know where they were until the rehabilitators found them. If DEEP really wanted to rescue the cubs, why didn’t they capture them the day the mama bear was shot, when DEEP was on the scene?” Michel said.
“It’s only because of the work of animal advocates and the people of Newtown that DEEP took action,” Hornish said. “This mother bear was shot to death. You can’t do that in Connecticut.”
It is illegal to kill a bear in Connecticut, but the law leaves much to interpretation. It says a property owner may kill a bear that poses a threat to people or is killing livestock, and a farmer may obtain a permit to kill a bear that damages property used for agriculture.
The police officer who shot the bear works at the Ridgefield Police Department. He has been put on administrative leave while DEEP officials investigate whether the shooting was warranted.
Hornish said the police officer keeps livestock at his Newtown home.
“He has free-ranging chickens,” she said. “It’s incumbent on owners to protect chickens from wildlife. This was a preventable situation.”
DEEP spokesman Will Healey said wildlife biologists did not say they would “let nature take its course” with the orphaned cubs.
“Wildlife biologists believe that wild animals should be given every opportunity to remain wild,” he said.
Biologists saw the cubs the day their mother was killed, assessed that they were healthy and “determined that it was in the best interest of the cubs to continue learning to forage for natural food sources in the home range, free from human interference,” Healey said.
Wildlife biologists continued to monitor the area over the next three days, he said.
The agency did not change its mind about rescuing the cubs after pressure from the public or the governor’s office, Healey said.
“DEEP determined it was in the best interest of the cubs for DEEP wildlife biologists to attempt capture and rehabilitation due to increased concerns for their safety as a result of social media attention suggesting actions that would have placed the cubs at risk,” he said.
Hornish said the case of Bobbi the black bear and her cubs illustrates a growing divide between how state agencies such DEEP view wildlife and how the public views it. She cited a 2018 study, “America’s Wildlife Values: The Social Context of Wildlife Management,” sponsored by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which surveyed agencies and citizens in all 50 states.
“The report found that public desire for humane coexistence with wildlife is growing,” Hornish said, and showed that “DEEP’s old-school hunter culture is not aligned with the public.”
According to the study’s Connecticut section, 98 percent of DEEP employees told researchers they have fished, and 74 percent said they have hunted.
But, among Connecticut residents interested in wildlife-related recreation, only 50 percent said they would fish and 18 percent would hunt. Most – 75 percent – said they like observing wildlife.
Among Connecticut’s general population, only 14 percent actively fish and 3 percent said they are active hunters.
Healey said human-dimension surveys “are complicated, and it is difficult to distill them to a black and white answer. People seldom fall into one category or the other; it’s often situationally based.”
That’s true, said Galle, the wildlife rehabilitator. There are hunters who also like to observe wildlife. DEEP employees appear to be in a tight spot, Galle said.
“How do you balance allowing hunting and rehabilitating wildlife? That’s a tough thing if you have to do both,” she said. “Hunting is where the money is, because of all the licensing fees. There’s no money in rehabilitation.”
Michel considers it a conflict of interest.
“DEEP puts non-native fish in our rivers because fishermen like to catch them, and they don’t do an environmental study to see how it affects the rest of the ecosystem,” Michel said. “Haven’t we learned enough from decades of mistakes? We can’t pretend to manage nature like that.”
The debate will go on. Connecticut is bear country now. Earlier this month one was hanging out in a tree on Strawberry Hill Avenue, amid high traffic and high-rise apartment buildings in downtown Stamford.
In the meantime, Bobbi’s boys are in New Hampshire, getting used to life at the Kilham Bear Center, where Ben Kilham has been rehabilitating and releasing injured, orphaned and abandoned black bears for 30 years.
Bobbi’s cubs are “perfectly normal,” Kilham said, even though they were with their mother about four months and they need 18 months. They will be ready for release into the center’s 11-acre forested enclosure this time next year, Kilham said.
He was not surprised to learn Bobbi roamed around Newtown for five years without hurting anyone.
“Her behavior is typical. Black bears are not aggressive; they are not dangerous,” Kilham said. “They are seeking food, and they acclimate and habituate to people very quickly.”
His nephew, Ethan Kilham, helps him care for the cubs that come to the center, he said. Ethan names them based on the places where they were found.
“For one of these cubs, he’s thinking Newtown is a lot like Newton,” Kilham said. “So maybe Isaac Newton” after the 17th-century English physicist who discovered the law of gravity.